It wasn’t that long ago that you had to put scare quotes around “Power 5” because of the ACC. The college basketball power was the flank steak to the sirloin tip of the SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, and Pac-12. But my how times have changed. The ACC has put a team in the national championship each of the last two years, and is home to reigning champ Clemson. While Dabo Swinney’s Tigers figure to take a step back this year, there’s still strength at the top of the conference and more depth than most realize.
Before the 2017 college football season kicks off (August 26), we’re going to get you acclimated with the landscape of each Power 5 conference, and find the best futures value for savvy bettors, starting on the Atlantic seaboard.
2017 ACC TITLE FAVORITES
Florida State: 11/10
The Seminoles went 10-3 last year and 5-3 in league action. They won their final five games including a 33-32 triumph over Michigan in the Orange Bowl. FSU returns 16 starters including quarterback Deondre Francois. An experienced defense gets safety Derwin James back, one of the top prospects in the country, from a knee injury. Even if Florida State loses their opener to Alabama, it won’t hurt them in the ACC title race and it will make every other game on the slate seem a little less challenging. It’s like a swinging with a doughnut in the on-deck circle before you step up to the plate.
The defending national champs lost quarterback Deshaun Watson, the title-game MVP and undisputed leader of the team. It is unclear whether Kelly Bryant or Hunter Johnson will step into the starting role, but the Tigers need an answer quickly. Their recruiting class is solid, but not huge.
The defense is in better shape than the offense with seven starters returning. That unit will need to be the strength of the team if Clemson is going to repeat as conference champs, let alone national champs. The Tigers lone loss last season came at home to Pittsburgh by a single point. If you’re looking for reason to fade the Tigers, beyond the fact that they’re losing Watson, consider the fact that they won a lot of one-score games last season: Auburn, Troy, Louisville, NC State, Florida State, Virginia Tech, and Alabama. That’s usually an omen for regression.
The Canes lose standout QB Brad Kaaya to the pros. They otherwise return fifteen starters from a team that won its final five games last year, including a bowl victory over West Virginia. Unlike Clemson, they were on the wrong side of most one-score games, with three of their four losses coming by seven or fewer, including a 20-19 setback against Florida State. They get a boost in the futures by playing in the Coastal Division, which allows them to avoid Clemson and Louisville in the regular season. Their biggest divisional competition is likely Virginia Tech, whom they’ll play on November 4. The toughest game on their schedule is a September 16 battle at FSU, but they could lose that game and still win the division and get to the ACC title game.
Quarterback Lamar Jackson is one of the best players in college football, and let’s not forget the Cardinals crushed Florida State 63-20 last year, and fell by one scare to Clemson on the road (42-36). That said, Louisville lost their final three games of the season (36-10 to Houston; 41-38 to Kentucky; and 29-9 to LSU in the Citrus Bowl) and they were all ugly.
Twelve starters are back, including Jackson, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, but the offensive line was suspect last season and will be again, plus several key skill-position players are gone.
Virginia Tech: 47/4
Over almost three decades, coach Frank Beamer did incredible things for Hokie football. His final four campaigns were the definition of mediocrity, though, and he capped his tenure with a 29-23 record over that time. Justin Fuente took over last season and the change immediately paid dividends. His team won 10 contests, including a win over Arkansas in the Belk Bowl. One of their most impressive games of the season actually came in a loss, narrowly falling to Clemson by a touchdown. Fuente will have an average 12 starters back, but like division rival Miami, needs a new answer at pivot.
As we already said about the Canes, playing in the Coastal Division means the Hokies’ route to the ACC championship game is a lot easier than Clemson, Louisville, and Florida State. They have an even easier schedule than Miami, hosting Clemson on September 30 while avoiding the Cards and Seminoles during the regular season.
THE BEST BET
The chance of either Miami or Virginia Tech being in the ACC Title Game is very strong; their shot of winning is not. Florida State looks the best on paper, but they have a tough schedule — playing at Clemson in late November — and ultra-short odds.
Clemson is a question mark without Watson, despite what should be a strong defense. Facing teams like FSU and Louisville likely means having to put up scores in the 30s and 40s, and I’m not convinced the Tigers’ new-look offense will be able to do that, especially against Derwin James and company.
That leaves Louisville, home to the best player in the league; the combination of Lamar Jackson and coach Bobby Petrino, a proven winner, at better than 8/1 is too much value to pass up. They proved last year that they can play with the big boys and have a decent chance to prove even more in 2017.